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Autonomous transportation is still futuristic, but freight trucking is pulling ahead
Autonomous vehicles are quickly becoming the next step for the majority of car and technology companies alike. There is still a long way to go before this mode of transportation becomes the norm, but it may arrive sooner for the freight trucking industry.
Trucks are well-suited to this technology, more so than taxis or regular cars, because they tend to have more consistent routes and functions. Traditional automakers like Volvo and Daimler are experimenting with self-driving technology. However, for the time being, most trucks will still have a driver on board as a fail-safe. On the other hand, companies like Waymo, Qomolo, and TuSimple are taking it a step further and working on integrating a fully driverless system into their existing workforce.
Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, takes a software approach to this task. Rather than manufacturing trucks itself, Waymo develops autonomous trucking software, which can then be integrated into fleets of compatible trucks. Considering how many vehicle manufacturers will begin to investigate opportunities to implement this tech into their own company, compatibility will be a key factor in making the safest and most efficient product.
Trucks from Shanghai-based Qomolo (Q-Trucks) are being tested in small-scale environments within Thailand’s Laem Chabang Port in Chon Buri. These entirely autonomous vehicles aim to make the port the most efficient terminal in the region, and have been conducting tests since April 2020.
On the other hand, TuSimple approaches autonomy from within its own factories. The company is set to begin its first driverless test this year, including pickup and delivery without a human present. Notably, unlike other manufacturers, this U.S.-based startup is set to conduct tests with Class 7 trucks (26,001-33,000 pounds), most commonly used for large freight transportation.
These autonomous trucks all tackle the same problem from different angles
The challenges these companies face are primarily logistical. To integrate autonomous driving into the trucking industry, companies like these aim to drastically improve customer service.
Waymo’s partnership with UPS is a key step toward legitimizing the use of this technology in business. UPS Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer Scott Price highlighted the potential added value for the customer thanks to its partnership with Waymo: “Getting packages to our sortation facilities sooner and more frequently” would open up possibilities for next day shipping to a wider network of consumers, he said.
Similarly, the electric Q-Trucks made in Shanghai and being tested in Laem Chabang Port are another vital step toward proving the viability of autonomous trucking. These mid-sized trucks are working on building a digital map of the port, and through the combination of Radar, Lidar and HD cameras, can work as if driven by a person, and all this without any additional carbon emissions on the part of the trucks or drivers.
What is remarkable about these vehicles and the results from the testing period so far is how they integrate into the existing base of workers at the port. This means that more menial, but necessary, jobs can be carried out by these autonomous trucks, whereas more delicate operations are completed by people. The features of these trucks, if applied in road transport, could quickly change how this technology is received by potential customers.
Beyond the obvious benefits of having a driver that never tires, trucks are well suited for autonomous systems. Trucks’ larger size relative to personal cars allows for more robust sensory systems, improving safety as well as their ability to navigate traffic.
For example, TuSimple uses a combination of high-definition cameras capable of seeing up to 1000 meters in a given direction, Radar systems, and Lidar detection all built from the ground up for its proprietary trucks. Being able to see further and react faster reduces the probability of accidents while making journeys more efficient.
There are more roadblocks than just technology
As with all autonomous vehicles at this early stage, setbacks are expected and progress is slow. In an ideal world, where all vehicles are autonomous and can communicate with each other, there would be almost no accidents. However, the biggest challenge for these manufacturers and technology companies is integration. If autonomous trucks fail to integrate into regular pedestrian and traffic flows, they may become more of a burden than a boon.
On a broader scale, the main incentive for autonomous driving is to eliminate the human element in driving, freeing up people’s time for more interesting or productive pursuits. So, while accidents may be less frequent, there is bound to be some failure, just like any computer system. Putting safety solely in the hands of an electrical system is a huge risk for any manufacturer trying to create a safe and trusted means of transporting goods.
According to Technology Review, there may always be a disconnect between people and automated vehicles because “cars and people don’t speak the same language.” This is why we still see so many fail-safes dependent on people, whether that be a driver on standby in the vehicle or a hub station like Qomolo’s, where the vehicles are monitored by remote drivers.
Of most immediate concern is the displacement of people currently working as long-haul drivers. Due to automation, nearly 2 million jobs are predicted to be impacted in the U.S. alone. However, for the time being, many of these autonomous vehicles will continue to require secondary drivers on board. Similarly, a majority of journeys will require so-called ‘first and last mile drivers’ to handle sections of road which require more delicacy than the software can handle. In any case, at present, there is no indication that automation will make human drivers obsolete.
These vehicles won’t be implemented everywhere
The wider rollout of driverless trucks depends strongly on the existing road and highway network, and how well it’s digitally mapped out. Without sophisticated GPS and digital mapping, there is little chance of autonomous trucks being put to work, as most of these vehicles – while they do have highly intelligent internal computing systems – would not fare well on routes that can’t or haven’t been mapped out.
Similarly, because the systems inside these vehicles are constantly using machine learning to improve themselves, they may perform differently in places they aren’t used to. An autonomous truck which has been taught the roads of California may act very differently in the tighter streets of Hong Kong, for instance.
Like all autonomous vehicles, there is still a lot of groundwork to be laid in order for self-driving trucks to integrate into and eventually become the norm for transport and delivery. But companies like Waymo, Qomolo, and TuSimple are striving to lay the foundations and make this vision a reality.